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Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots Found Hidden Beneath Another Painting

The politically dangerous work was painted over by Adrian Vanson two year after the queen’s execution

(Scottish National Portrait Gallery)
smithsonian.com

By all accounts, Mary, Queen of Scots was a kind woman, tall, beautiful and, much to her eventual dismay, trusting of her friends and relatives. Though she was not a religious zealot, her Catholic heritage made her a threat to Elizabeth I of England. Showing any support for Mary in England was dangerous, and in 1587 she was executed. This may be why two years later, Dutch painter Adrian Vanson painted over an unfinished portrait of Mary. Maev Kennedy at The Guardian reports that image has now been uncovered by X-ray scans.

The depiction of Mary was found under a painting of John Maitland, a nobleman who became lord chancellor of Scotland. According to a press release, conservator Caroline Rae at the Courtauld Institute of Art was examining the works of two Dutch portraitists, Vanson and Adam de Colone. While looking at some of their work using X-ray photography, the ghostly image of woman’s face and dress appeared.

Rae was able to trace the image and compare it to other portraits from the era, finding that the position of the seated figure, its hands and details of its gown were similar to those in portraits of Mary, including an image hanging in Blair Castle in Perthshire.

“Vanson’s portrait of Sir John Maitland is an important picture in the National Trust collection, and the remarkable discovery of the unfinished portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots adds an exciting hidden dimension to it,” David Taylor, curator of pictures and sculpture at the National Trust tells Reuters. “It shows that portraits of the queen were being copied and presumably displayed in Scotland around the time of her execution, a highly contentious and potentially dangerous thing to be seen doing.”

This is just one of many images found underneath paintings in recent years. Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan at Gizmodo reports that there is an image of man in a bowtie under Pablo Picasso’s iconic image "The Blue Room" and Vincent van Gogh was known for reusing his canvases, with false starts and sketches found under his works. In 2015, a French scientist using an technique called reflective light technology claimed he found another portrait underneath the "Mona Lisa," though others are skeptical of that claim. But bona fide da Vinci work was discovered in Milan’s Sforza Castle. That unfinished mural is covered in layers of whitewash and is being painstakingly restored.

Kennedy reports that the portrait of John Maitland normally hangs in the historic Ham House in southwest London, but it is currently on display along with the X-ray image and other works of Vanson and de Colone at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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